Chat on the Quilliam Foundation with Its CEO, Haras Rafiq

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Haras Rafiq is Quilliam’s CEO and an Executive Board Member. He is currently a member of Prime Minister’s Community Engagement Forum (CEF) Task Force and was formerly a member of the UK Government’s task force looking at countering extremism in response to the 2005 terrorist bombings in London, as well as being a peer mentor for IDeA – advising regional government. He is also a member of the Advisory Group on Online Terrorist Propaganda at Europol’s European Counter-terrorism Centre (ECTC).

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Some of the narratives put out can not only be on either side of those in terms of countering extremist narratives and those trying to prop up and promote extremist narratives. Some on the fringes of both of those. Those that are affected are moderate faith members. Where, there can be additional anti-Muslim sentiment as individuals. Of course, there’s anti-atheist, anti-Christian, prejudice depending on where you are and it will vary in its means and representation. How does anti-Muslim sentiment increase, in what ways does it increase, in light of some of these concerns on the periphery?

Haras Rafiq: First of all, I’m glad you didn’t use the word Islamophobia. Islam is a set of beliefs. It is a set of values. I am a Muslim. I choose to accept Islamic values and Islamic ideas. Not the ones that ISIS or the Muslim Brotherhood have, different ones. I choose those values. In a liberal secular democracy, no idea should be beyond scrutiny, but no individual should be beyond dignity. This is a mantra at Quilliam. It means that Islamophobia is a term that is defunct and is a term quite often used to stifle criticism particular interpretations of the faith, and particular organisations.

Anti-Muslim hatred is real. Now, the problem we have in the UK is anti-Muslim sentiment can be on the increase, but you know what it is not as bad as it is in the US or mainland Europe. That is because in the UK we do have a growing number, not enough – we need more, people who are ordinary Muslims who aren’t Islamists and who aren’t extremists, who aren’t fundamentalists, who are starting to help portray that not every single Muslim is the same as Anjem Choudary or Shakeel Begg (who sued the BBC and lost). The problem is we have the regressive Left and the far-Right that are actually at war with each other, virtually.

Both claiming these particular types of Islamist Islam is normative Islam. Therein lies the problem; in the UK and the US more so, we have these regressive Left and far-Right people who are trying to claim that the real Islam is Islamists Islam. It doesn’t help. It takes people out of the middle ground and moves them to this polarisation. ISIS said very, very clearly that they want to create anti-Muslim sentiment in the West. In their magazine, Dabiq, they want to take people out of nuance and debate and move them into binary positions. The problem is when we don’t have enough Muslims and non-Muslims coming out and unequivocally not just condemning Islamism in general, not just ISIS or al-Qaeda or Muslim Brotherhood, and saying we do have people moving to the extremist positions. This is a problem. If we didn’t have ISIS, al-Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, or people saying, “In an ideal Muslim country, if people commit adultery, then don’t stone them to death.” There wouldn’t be anti-Muslim sentiment. We didn’t have anti-Muslim sentiment when I was growing up.

I think there will always be an element of racism, and people who are xenophobic and bigoted. I think it has moved over to being anti-Muslim sentiment. I think that’s more of what civil society needs to take on, but we as Muslim communities and others, collectively, need to help to show to ordinary people who as it was in the past. Groups that like the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaeda, ISIS, etc, don’t represent us at all.

Jacobsen: What about moderate Muslim scholars coming forth and assisting and providing that more moderate narrative?

Rafiq: First of all, I don’t like the term moderate. I’ll tell you why. Right now, in the UK and in the world, there are a group of so-called moderate scholars calling for the activation of the blasphemy law. There are people in 2006, who I remember taking to Tony Blair. When he asked me to bring him the moderates, I said, “Here are the moderates. They aren’t Salafists They aren’t Islamists. They are another denomination, and they happen to the majority in the UK.” There was a guy named Salmaan Taseer in Pakistan who was a politician and who was killed by his bodyguard. The killer, Mumtaz Qadri, was praised as a martyr when he was found guilty and executed. I don’t agree with the death penalty, but he was executed and praised as a martyr and somebody who was a qazi – praiseworthy – because he killed somebody for being blasphemous.

This was being called out by people who would be known as moderates. Some of the traditions that I come from. So, I don’t like the term first of all. I would use the term ordinary Muslims. Those who reject, from a human rights perspective, certain interpretations that don’t fit into our values that we believe in. The universal or human values. I don’t like to call them British values. They are universal values. Human values like human rights, secularism, and so on. There are a number of a scholars that have started to shift that way. There’s an Arabic Quranic concept:

إصلاح

Islah means reform. Reform through reasoning, ijtihad. Salafis and Islamists don’t want this to happen, but there are more Shaykh Bin Bayyah and Shaykh Hisham Kabbani, and a number of others, who have an international platform and are starting to gain a little bit more traction now and a bit more support. They can’t do it themselves. I’ll tell you why scholars aren’t the sole solution. I’ll tell you an anecdote. I’ve got tons of anecdotes, been doing this for 12 years!

I was doing a lecture of Prevent. There was a leading shaykh/scholar. I asked him to do the religious stuff. The assistant warden said that he’s got a person who has given him a bit of grief, radicalising other people, and asked if we had time to talk to him. He came 45 minutes late, pale – absolutely pale. I made a joke, “Did you radicalise him?” He shook his head. I leaned over him. He said, “The guy’s got a point.”

He went in with his version of theology, moderate theology, and said he’ll see you with my version. The shaykh told me that he won the debate on theology. I trust him that he won that. But then the guy hit him with the intellectual, the ideological, the social, and the emotional, and the scholar had nothing. He was used to living in a bubble all of his life, living in a seminary. He couldn’t cope.

(Laugh)

Instead of offering the other guy some form of critical inquiry, he ended up deflecting on some critical inquiry himself, but they do need to be involved. They are part of the solution. That’s why we’ve fully taken on Shaykh Salah al-Ansari at Quilliam, who is from Al-Azhar University, used to be the Imam from the largest mosque in London, most prestigious, in the UK. He is a good reformer. Shaykh Usama Hassan and other, we are getting people to help stimulate the debate and reform. More needs to be done. On their own, they are not the solution.

Jacobsen: As the CEO and executive board member for Quilliam, what tasks and responsibilities come along with this position?

Rafiq: I was the managing director for a number of years. I was responsible for sustainable growth in the UK. We’ve done that. When I first took over as managing director, we had 6 or 7 full-time staff. Now, we’ve got 20 in the UK. The problem that we face is the problem of global jihadist insurgency. The problem is around the world. It cannot just be dealt with in the UK, but needs to be dealt with around the world.

Adam Deen used to be a former extremist himself. My job is to help set up Quilliam offices and the Quilliam model in other countries. We are a 501(c)3 in the US, but we haven’t had a physical presence. We finished the paperwork to be set up as an NGO in Canada. My aim is to set up physical offices and presences in North America. Also, I am looking in other countries.

My job is to make penetration on policy makers and in the messaging to Muslims and Muslim communities. The third is to make sure that we do this, so that we have sustainable growth and bring in business models to make sure the business is viable and sustainable. Finally, the keeping of the best staff. I think that as we grow we need to employ, train, and maintain the best staff. We’ve got a number of projects ongoing in Europe and North Africa, as a network, which are coming together to combat this phenomenon.  We want to reach out to Europe, Africa, North America, and other parts of the world as well.

Jacobsen: Any thoughts or feelings in conclusion?

Rafiq: Conatus News is great. I think it is a fantastic initiative. It is really important that we get this vital work done. It is important that we make sure that as a civil society – I remember in 1972 going to my first football match with my brother; I was 7 years of age. It was the home team. 15 minutes before the end, we had to leave because there was racism that the home team supporters were going to beat us up. Now, premier football stadiums that doesn’t happen. There is racism, but it is nowhere near as bad as it used to be. Why? The reason why is civil society and trans-media activism, projects and campaigns to kick racism out of football through celebrities and other people tried to educate and tackle this phenomenon means there’s been a shifting of social norms. I want to get to the point with Quilliam as part of the solution, where civil society is much stronger on the issue of tackling Islamism. We want to get to the point where civil society reacts the same way to Islamism as they do to racism, sexism, and fascism. People talk about jihad. This is my jihad. This is my struggle to combat extremism, and extremism of all sorts.

Jacobsen: Thank you for your time, Mr. Rafiq.

Image Credit: Haras Rafiq/Conatus News.

Original publication in Conatus News.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen founded In-Sight Publishing and In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal.

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